March 21, 2018

Celebrating Bach’s Birthday: From Leipzig to Princeton and Back Again

By Stuart Mitchner

To do justice to the music of Bach, you should “listen, play, love, revere, and keep your trap shut.” This in-your-face edict from Albert Einstein was scrawled in the margin of a letter, according to John Eliot Gardiner’s biography Bach: Music in the Castle of Heaven (Knopf 2013). Curious to see the German equivalent of “Keep your trap shut,” I checked online and came up with “Halte deine Falle geschlossen,” which seemed unlikely (too wordy) compared to “Halt die Klappe!” or “Halt den Schnabel!”

What ultimately matters is that March 21 is Bach’s birthday and rather than obeying Einstein, I’m plunging ahead in respect of the birthday equation, Einsten 3-14/Bach 3-21.

“Now We’re Ready for Bach!”

During a chamber music recital at the home of a New York philanthropist, a young writer named Jerome finds himself sitting next to Albert Einstein, who asks him, “You are fond of Bach?” When Jerome says he knows nothing about Bach, confessing that he’s tone-deaf, Einstein leads him out of the drawing room (people are staring) to a book-lined study, where the young man is asked if there’s any kind of music he likes. Jerome says songs with words, popular songs, so Einstein finds a Bing Crosby record, puts it on the phonograph, and asks Jerome to describe what he just heard. All Jerome can do is to sing it, and so he does, staying in tune. Einstein is delighted — ”You see!” he cries. “You do have an ear.”

After repeating the process with several gradually more sophisticated samples, from a Caruso aria to a classical piece, each of which his captive student is able to either sing or hum in tune, Einstein says, “Now, young man, we are ready for Bach!” And down they go to the drawing room in time to hear the chamber ensemble play Bach’s “Sheep May Safely Gaze.” Jerome listens, loves it, reveres it, and keeps his trap shut. Asked by the upset hostess why the guest of honor walked out in the middle of the recital, Einstein tells her that he and his young friend were engaged in “the greatest activity of which man is capable. Opening up yet another fragment of the frontier of beauty.”

Bach in Princeton

Six years ago in William Scheide’s Princeton home I spent a minute pondering the portrait of Bach painted by Elias Gottlob Haussmann, from life, in 1748. Viewed in domestic surroundings, the portrait acquires another, more familiar dimension. Bach is there, he’s 63, alive and well, color in his cheeks, light in his eyes.

In “Under the Cantor’s Gaze,” the first chapter of Gardiner’s biography, you discover that long before the Haussmann portrait was sold to Scheide at auction in 1952, it held “pride of place” on the first-floor landing of Bach’s future biographer’s childhood home. A music teacher who came to Dorset from Lower Silesia in 1936 had given the portrait to the Gardiner family “for safe keeping,” figuring that its chances of surviving an air raid were better in a country home. Thus the child who would one day perform, conduct, and write about Bach passed by the portrait every night on his way to bed, doing his best to avoid the Cantor’s “forbidding stare.”

Sixty years later, Gardiner came to Princeton for another, closer look. Recalling his childhood impression of the painting’s “stern, impassive, and slightly forbidding” aspect, Gardiner was struck by “how astutely Haussmann had captured opposed facets of his sitter’s character: the serious and the sensual.” The gaze was “intense but far livelier” than he remembered. His overall impression was of “someone a lot more complex, nuanced, and, above all, human [Gardiner’s emphasis] than the formal portrait of a public figure.”

Composed at 22

Gardiner is still grappling with his use of the word forbidding when he admits that Bach “can seem a little remote at times” even to his most ardent admirers and that his widely acknowledged genius as a musician may be “just too far out of reach for most of us to comprehend.” Looking for an example of the vulnerability of a composer “struggling with an ordinary person’s doubts, worries, and perplexities,” Gardiner chooses a work composed when Bach was only 22, the Actus tragicus cantata ( “God’s own time is the very best of times”) whose opening sonatina “comprises twenty of the most heart-rending bars in all of his works.” Gardiner stresses “the unusually soft-toned instrumentation,” “the yearning dissonance” given to the two violas da gamba, and the “ravishing way” the two recorders “entwine and exchange adjacent notes, slipping in and out of unison.”

With a world of music still ahead of him, Bach is contemplating death, grief, and salvation. Having listened to and watched several performances of the cantata online, I find the quality Gardiner refers to most movingly expressed in a public recital posted with English subtitles on a site called Holy Poverty. It’s not merely that the wavering, tenuously sustained playing by the two recorders in the opening sequence is “heart-rending,” it’s the sense that both the musicians and the composer are finding their way. The two men playing the recorders, one white-haired, the other young and earnest, sway with the music, weaving and being woven into the same somber processional, moving within a stately absolute that at once expresses and transcends the sacred occasion. During a rehearsal toward the end of the video, as the conductor and several of the musicians discuss the piece, the elder recorder player says that it’s the “least flexible instrument” and “the most difficult to play in tune, even when you’re alone,” the tone rising or sinking to a small degree so that “you always get interference between the two.” Addressing the conductor, he adds, “We’ll try to play in tune tonight, but not quite in tune.” Referring to “these dissonances, like hands wringing, almost,” the conductor says that Bach “never does that anywhere else. Never again. He did it at 22, and that’s all. Very distressing, isn’t it? But it’s an extraordinary moment.” According to Alfred Dürr, the principal editor of the Complete Works of Bach, the Actus tragicus is “a piece of world literature.”

Crazy for Coffee 

At the close of his discussion of Bach’s “so-called Coffee Cantata” and the craze for coffee in Leipzig, where by 1725 eight coffee houses had opened their doors, Gardiner quotes “a proverb of the day” that says “A good coffee must be as hot as the kisses of a girl on the first day, as sweet as her love on the third day, and as black as her mother’s curses when she finds out about it.” There are several online performances of the cantata wherein a father scolds his daughter (“You naughty child, you wild girl, get rid of coffee for my sake!”) and she stands her ground: “Ah! how sweet coffee tastes, more delicious than a thousand kisses, smoother than muscatel wine.”

Bach’s Riddle

The Haussmann portrait serves Gardiner as an entry and exit point, not only in the biography but to some extent in his own life, since six decades would pass before he saw the painting again in William Scheide’s living room. After his observations about the “serious and sensual” facets, Gardiner focuses on a hidden message: “In his right hand, Bach holds a page of music — a ‘Canon triplex à 6 voc.’” According to Gardiner, this canon is one of 14 that Bach transcribed on the back of his copy of the Goldberg Variations: “Apart from its intellectually challenging title, the puzzle lies in the way we read its three lines.” When read as Bach seems to present it, written in alto, tenor, and bass clefs, the result is “pleasant enough but ever so slightly banal,” which doesn’t explain why Bach would have wanted Haussmann to paint him holding this particular sheet of manuscript (“Bach’s expression seems to say, ‘Look more closely: my music doesn’t yield all its secrets in a single glance”). Gardiner solves the riddle by in effect turning the sheet upside down in order to read the music from Bach’s actual vantage point. By a process of deduction too elaborate to repeat in a family newspaper, the biographer discovers “the never ending loop — a canon perpetuus,” meaning “the music never resolves,” a precursor to Joyce’s formula for Finnegan’s Wake.

So we follow the loop back to Princeton, the home of the physicist musician born 3-14 and of William Scheide, another of Bach’s admirers, who bequeathed the Haussmann portrait to the Bach archive, making sure that the best known image of the composer returned to his home city Leipzig.

The Einstein anecdote is paraphrased from Jerome Weidman’s “My Most Unforgettable Character” piece in the November 1955 Reader’s Digest, “The Night I Met Einstein.”

Thanks once again to the Princeton Public Library where I found the books and music mentioned here.